Egypt's capital: Art Deco to desert skyscrapers

Amira Howeidy , Thursday 19 Mar 2015

Today’s vision for a new capital is styled on Dubai, a significant departure from modern Cairo, which was inspired by European architecture

Downtown Cairo
Downtown Cairo (Photo: Osman El-Sharnoubi)

Almost a century and a half after Egypt’s Khedive Ismail embarked on building a European-style capital, Cairo appears set for another bout of modernisation, this time inspired by the glitzy Gulf city of Dubai.

While the khedive moved the capital, physically and metaphorically, westwards, the plan now is to move it further to the east and into the desert, in emulation of cities in the oil-rich Gulf.

The radical idea encapsulates how Egypt’s urban history, like that of many nations, is shaped by political and economic developments, together with international standing and identity politics.

Ismail Pasha, the then khedive, visited Paris for the Universal Exposition in 1867, where he was impressed by the French capital’s massive renovation and architectural revolution. He declared: “Over the past 30 years Europe’s influence has transformed Cairo. Now … we are civilised.”

Such was the disposition of Egypt’s ruler, shared to a large degree by the country’s elite, which looked to Europe as a reference for civilisation while the Ottoman Empire was in decline.

The khedive had already introduced much-needed technical innovations to Cairo that included modern infrastructure and an expanding railway system linked to the capital. Inspired by Baron Haussmann’s vision for Paris, he now set out to transform Cairo, in the words of historian André Raymond, “into a worthy rival of the great European capitals.”

In order to do this the khedive did not seek to renovate the old city, where Egypt’s rulers since Saladin in the Middle Ages had been based in the 12th-century citadel. Instead, the French-educated Ismail, buoyed by a booming economy, thanks to a rise in cotton prices and the imminent inauguration of the Suez Canal, embarked on building a new capital almost the same size as historic Cairo.

Omar Effendi
Omar Effendi department store (formerly Orsodi-Back) in downtown Cairo was built in Neo-Baroque style in 1909 by French architect Raoul Brandon. (Photo: courtesy of Paris Along the Nile by Cynthia Mynti)

Known as Al-Ismailiya, the new quarter was inspired by the Haussmann model, says Raymond, “a network of straightened widened thoroughfares would connect a dozen squares.” Today’s downtown arteries — Qasr Al-Ni, Suleiman Pasha and Qasr Al-Aini — were all planned under the khedive.

The new quarter housed new government buildings, an opera house, a theatre, a museum, lavish gardens and numerous palaces that Ismail wanted to showcase to the world’s dignitaries at the Suez Canal’s inauguration in 1869.

This required “open squares adorned with heroic statues and gas-lit avenues lined with palaces and villas. It needed parks with grottos and Chinese pavilions and pleasure lakes rippled by pedalled boats,” writes journalist Max Rodenbeck in his book Cairo, the City Victorious.

But a series of developments plunged Egypt into debt with the European powers and a financial crisis that led to Ismail’s exile in 1879.

The British occupation of Egypt from 1882 to 1954 did little for the khedive’s Cairo, but the capital’s eclectic European architectural style persisted as it became home to the country’s wealthy and cosmopolitan elite.

The city developed over the 72 years of the British occupation to include instances of revivalism that included the use of Islamic and neo-Mamluke styles at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries by European and Egyptian architects. The 1925 Art Deco style, all the rage at the time, is predominant in what remains of downtown Cairo today.

If present plans come to fruition, a new “administrative capital,” as officials describe it, 50 kms east of the present capital will be completed in five years on an area of 490 square kms.

A model of the yet to be named project, unveiled at the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh earlier this week, showed mirror-covered skyscrapers and a glassy internally-lit Pharaonic obelisk towering over the purple-tinted new city.

An Emirati business tycoon whose company built the tallest tower in the world in Dubai is in charge of construction of the new capital at a cost of $45 billion.

model of a planned new capital for Egypt
A model of a planned new capital for Egypt is on display at a major economic conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt (Photo: Fouad Mansour)

Very little information has been revealed about the new capital, and there are no guarantees at this early stage that it will ever be realised. But whether or not the new capital is ever built it is clear that the city of Dubai has now become the reference for modernity and taste.

“Reality forces itself on and tastes have changed,” said Ahmad Al-Bindari, an architectural historian and photographer. “Downtown Cairo is past its glory years, and Gulf-style shopping malls are popular, which means there’s a need for this, even if it’s largely limited to only a portion of Egyptians.” The question is, he asked, does Cairo really need the tallest skyscrappers and a bigger Disney Land?

It’s a reality that leaves many Egyptians divided between admiration for a more Arabised model of globalisation and a rejection of its obsession with superlatives. There is also the fear that the existing Cairo of the Pyramids, together with its Islamic, Coptic, mediaeval and colonial histories and architecture, will now be abandoned and left to crumble.

“The Gulf cities themselves are copies of what Western cities are imagined to be,” said Amina Elbendary, a professor of Middle East history at the American University in Cairo. “My objection isn’t that this model [for a new capital] is coming from the Gulf, but rather that it’s geared towards consumption. They have wide roads, air-conditioned cars and cheap oil, which are luxuries we lack in Egypt, where the attitude to public space is different.”

The logic of urban expansion outside the capital has dominated mainstream thinking over the past decade, driving swathes of upper-middle-class Egyptians to gated communities in satellite cities to the north and east of Cairo.

The neo-liberal policies adopted by the Mubarak regime during its last ten years encouraged this trend and sought to attract Gulf investors to feed it. The idea of a new capital was also proposed during Mubarak’s time but was interrupted by the 2011 uprising.

The model of urban modernity, hi-tech facilities and comfortable living in an orderly environment has manifested itself in the Egyptian public’s collective imagination. Dubai-like Gulf cities are the result of decades-long migration patterns, with people searching for better working and living conditions in the oil-rich Gulf countries.

Millions of Egyptians working in the Gulf have transferred billions of dollars in remittances back home, together with many of the values, tastes and cultural norms of their host countries.

“A good chunk of Egypt’s elite grew up in the Gulf, and it makes sense that they admire cities like Dubai and not New York, for example, because it’s more familiar and modern,” said David Sims, an economic and urban planner based in Egypt since 1973. President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi who is the biggest proponent of the new capital lived in Saudi Arabia where he worked as the Egyptian embassy's military attache.

The Gulf is also where the money is coming from. “Eighty per cent of foreign investment in Egypt is from the Gulf, not the United States and not Europe. And this is part of the national strategy,” Sims added.

Conservation architect Omniya Abdel-Barr graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in 2000. As she said, three quarters of her class went to work in Dubai because they couldn’t find jobs in Egypt. When Abdel-Barr joined an architectural studio at that time, all her work was on projects in the Gulf.

“The designers of these projects are Westerners, but a good proportion of the engineers supervising the work are Egyptian. Their architectural experiences have been shaped by these modern international models,” she said. 

For decades, the best architects and contractors in the world came to Egypt and left their mark on now priceless buildings, added Abdel-Barr "but now Dubai is our reference."

"But we don’t need Dubai. This is Cairo.”

*A version of this article was published in the 19-25 March issue of Al-Ahram Weekly

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